Feb 25, 2013 · 4 minutes

At the start of the month, the tech industry’s corner of the Internet erupted into a mix of fury, bemusement, and insult-flinging in a discussion about race and tech prompted by an article written by Jamelle Bouie. The  brouhaha blew up all over Twitter and was widely covered in the tech press. Bouie’s story, "And Read All Over," was first published in The Magazine, at that point an iOS-only publication started by Marco Arment, the founder of Instapaper. It was just the sort of newsy, controversial debate that can help a new publication raise its profile. But The Magazine got almost zero benefit.

In fact, the publication had published Bouie’s story a month before the author released it on his website, but few people seemed to care. After the initial publication, it caused nary a stir. As a way of attracting top writers, Arment lets The Magazine contributors self-publish their stories 30 days after they have first appeared in the publication.* It was only when Bouie published the story on his own site that his story found a wide audience.

Realizing his error, Arment has changed his publishing policy to make The Magazine stories fully available and shareable on the open Web. For the first 10 issues of The Magazine, when readers shared a story from the app via Twitter or Facebook, the link led only to a short extract. Now, however, Arment is letting readers share full-text articles, and he has enabled Web subscriptions, meaning The Magazine is for the first time accessible to non-iOS users. It's now also possible to read the publication on Kindle. However, there is a catch: Readers can access only one full story for free per month, and each one serves as a “free trial” that pushes readers to subscribe. Arment justifies the paltry quota by saying that, because The Magazine publishes an average of only 11 articles a month and doesn’t carry ads, it wouldn’t make economic sense to offer more.

The lesson for digital publishers: If you’re not part of the social media conversation, you barely exist. In terms of wider socio-cultural discussion, you’re hardly relevant at all. You might as well be an academic journal.

For many publications, that would be just fine. There is a lot to be said for cultivating a small but passionate audience that it is willing to pay to support your work. That’s the approach being taken by the titles published by 29th Street Publishing, including Maura Magazine and V as in Victor. Their models are set up so that they need only a small subscriber base to be able to cover their costs and, all going well, make a little extra money on top. For niche segments, such as (in Maura’s case) indie culture and music, or (in V as in Victor’s case) Latinos in sports, that may work fine. The publishers and writers in those cases may be happy just to be able to get paid for their work, and to be able to do so without being slave to the dynamics of larger publishing institutions, which might require more attention to advertising, pageviews, SEO, or other distasteful economic considerations.

However, many writers – especially magazine writers – want to do more than just get paid for their work. They want to influence society, be it in politics, tech, sports, or whatever. To have influence, you either have to be an elite publication read by the powerful few, or you have to be able to break through into the everyday discourse that these days is taking place mainly on Twitter, and then in the Web publications that pick up on those conversations. That task is challenge enough for publications that are pumping out Web articles every day, but it’s even more difficult for the likes of The Magazine, which publishes stories only once every two weeks and has until now been cloistered away on iPhones and iPads. Being part of the social media discussion is crucial for reminding readers that you’re important and worth paying attention to. Popping up frequently in discussions conducted on Twitter is more than just an ego boost for writers; it’s a constant, thrumming reminder: We exist. We’re relevant. We’re important. You should probably subscribe.

With Web subscriptions and full-text article sharing, The Magazine has now entered the ranks of the “porous paywall,” alongside the New York Times and Andrew Sullivan.  Actually, as Arment recently outlined to NPR’s Planet Money, The Magazine is already profitable. Arment pays his writers $800 per article, charges readers $1.99 a month, and has 25,000 subscribers. The publication pulls in $35,000 a month (after Apple has taken its cut), while the publication costs $20,000 a month to produce. That’s a handy profit for a new magazine with two staffers (Arment recently hired Glenn Fleishman as executive editor), even after taking into account the upfront production costs for the app build and design.

The challenge The Magazine faces in growing its subscriber base, however, is reminding people that it’s there. It’s likely that Arment got a bunch of subscribers in the initial burst of publicity The Magazine enjoyed upon launch. Since then, however, The Magazine has only really existed for its 25,000 subscribers, which is a small audience. For it to reach new readers, and for the writers to feel like they have influence beyond the four walls of the iOS app, The Magazine simply had to open up. The only question is whether allowing non-subscribers one free article per month – just one reminder every 30 days that it might be worth paying attention to – is open enough.

* In the comments, The Magazine's executive editor Glenn Fleishman has clarified the publication's policy for authors. The publication gets non-exclusive rights to articles eternally, but the authors gets ownership rights back 30 days after publication, at which point they're free to do whatever they want with the articles.

[Lead image via NPR and The Magazine]